Tools, templates, and best practices

I must admit, I have a love-hate relationship with templates. On the one hand they can be an effective way to support well-defined business analysis processes, ensuring deliverables are presented in a consistent manner and facilitate a shared vision. On the other hand they can be cumbersome, overly-complicated forms that lead to confusing, boring deliverables that detract from their original intent. As Business Analysts, what can we do to define and refine our templates so they help more than they hinder our goals?

When I’ve worked with clients to enhance their organizational business analysis maturity I’ve developed templates to support the business analysis processes being put in place. Through my work with these organizations, I have come up with some initial overall assessment and template-specific criteria to help figure out when a template is needed and if the developed template is ready for use.

Initial Overall Assessment Criteria

To get started, I usually want to determine which templates are needed versus what may be nice to have or even hamper business analysis activities. Some of the typical questions I will ask include:

  • Who performs the business analysis activities for the organization?
  • What is their level of expertise and competency in business analysis activities?
  • What are the deliverables within the business analysis function for the organization?
  • What tools are available to develop and maintain business analysis deliverables?
  • How will the content within the business analysis deliverables be used by stakeholders?
  • Are there related job functions within the organization that will contribute to a shared deliverable or where the business analysis output is already defined in one of their templates?
  • What is the size of the organization or organizational units in scope that will use the templates?
  • How diverse is the employee population (in terms of educational background, cultures, and job functions)?
  • What is the recent employee turnover rate for the organization?

For each deliverable a BA may expect to develop, you can use the above information to determine whether a template is mandatory, helpful but not absolutely necessary, or has limited value.

In smaller organizations or organizational unit (less than 200 people), I have found less need to have templates for intermediate or seldom-performed activities, particularly if they share a similar background or have been predominantly working together for many years with little turnover. In these situations staff can often quickly understand each other through a variety of communication methods, and are less reliant on standard documentation to achieve a shared vision. In some circumstances, the rigidity of a template can inhibit their dynamic communication or adds an unnecessary layer of work before they can continue to the next task in the process.

Organizations that rely on people to perform business analysis as a secondary job function, or who frequently bring in business analysis consultants or contractors to perform BA tasks, often benefit from having more templates than fewer ones.

Template Quality Criteria

A good template is like a good deliverable: it should be understandable to its target audience, be purpose-driven, and present a clear and consistent message. The University of Reading in the UK has a very good list of 16 quality criteria for any document, which can also apply to templates.

When a template is drafted, the following questions can be put to all the stakeholders involved in the creation and use of deliverables based on the template:

  • Is the purpose of the template clearly defined?
  • Is it easy to see when the template should be used, either in the business analysis process documentation or within the template itself?
  • Are there instructions on how to complete the template? Have they been vetted by the users of the template as being clear and relevant?
  • Are there examples on how to complete the template?
  • Are there related templates for diagrams or other artifacts that go into the template?
  • Is it clear which sections must be completed versus optional?
  • For optional sections, does it clearly state when these sections should be included?
  • If there are many optional sections:
    • Are there several either/or sections?
    • Are there sections for infrequent occurrences?
    • Would it be better to have separate templates for alternative circumstances?
    • Where there is information being pulled from other sources, is it clear how to bring that information into the template in a consistent manner?
    • After you’ve used the template a couple of times, do you find yourself having to spend more time customizing or removing information from the template than you do putting information into the template?

Once the template is developed, it should be reviewed regularly to ensure it still meets the needs of the organization given the inevitable changes that occur over time. The only thing worse than no standards is out-of-date standards.

Beyond Traditional Documents

As Business Analyst tools and techniques have matured, alternatives to traditional Office document deliverables are starting to become more prevalent. Whether you are using a wiki, a video, an interactive web-based presentation, a functional or non-functional prototype, or some other manifestation of business analysis work, the above principles for template development still apply. Some level of standardization with these outputs develops consistent stakeholder expectations and ensures the resulting outputs are able to be used in the next stage of the overall organizational process that business analysis is occurring within.

Templates can be a helpful addition to a BA’s toolkit or a hindrance to getting work done; if you are going to use them take the time to develop meaningful and actionable templates that will make your life simpler in the future.

Your Thoughts Please

 How has your experience been working with templates? Please use the comment area below to leave your feedback or any questions.

 Wait a minute, did I just say that there is a template called “BA Approach”?
 
Chances are that you may already be involved in contributing to defining business analysis approach one way or another – without knowing it, now is the time to discover it! 
 
Like some of the tasks in the BABOK don’t directly align with what you do or it maybe called differently. One classical example is conducting a “Requirements gathering sessions” vs. what the BABOK refers to it as “Conducting Elicitation Session”… btw, I have a big issue with the word “gathering”, we will leave this one for another post another day!
 
So, back to “Business Analysis Approach” and understanding how you can perform it in your projects effectively. 
 
In this post, you will learn and understand what defining a BA approach really means and also learn how to use the BA Approach template.

First Principles – What is Business Analysis Approach?

Let me illustrate with an example. Imagine John and Mary are getting married. If this is a “Change” that needs to planned, a lot of things have to be done until the day of exchanging the vows. And imagine Julia is getting hired as an event planner responsible to organize and plan their wedding. She would have to:  
  • Clearly understand what values are dear to John and Mary as a couple
  • What kind of wedding they wish to have (low-key, high-profile, destination, etc.)
  • What kind of wedding invitations need to be printed
  • The complete guest list and detailed profiles of their family members and close relatives 
  • A VIP guest list 
  • Food preferences, menu choices, etc.
etc…. you can imagine other important components. 
 
If Julia was a BA in her previous life (and regrets switching to being an event planner), her approach to planning wedding will include:  
  • A checklist of tasks that need to be performed to make the wedding successful (checklists for different aspects)
  • A list of stakeholders that need to be invited or  consulted.
  • Deliverables and milestones to be achieved all along (sample wedding card, cake prototype, menu sampling, booking and tour of the convention centre, photography and videography, etc.) 
 
If you notice, she has externalized her intentions, ideas and work on paper. This helps her to do her job better, and calms the nerves of the couple-to-be. 
 
As a Business Analyst (especially if you are a seasoned professional), doing this at the beginning of your analysis can help you immensely perform your job better.

BA Approach In BABOK 

The first knowledge area in BABOK – Business Analysis Planning and Monitoring – elaborates on BA Approach (BABOK 2.1).  Here is a definition from BABOK (V2): 
 
“Business analysis approaches describe the overall process that will be followed to perform business analysis work on a given initiative, how and when tasks will be performed, the techniques that will be used, and the deliverables that should be produced.”

Three Secrets to a Great Start 

  1. Understand the problem and organizational context - understanding  the business problem being solved or looked into is an important first step. Your approach to build a software would be different from the one to outsource or improve a process. Is the organization process heavy and mature or is a start-up filled with instragramers who will post the product backlog on Facebook. 
  2. What type of project is it? – closely related to understanding the problem, take a step back and understand what kind of project is being undertaken. Is this an in-house software development for a mission critical business application or a COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) product for a not so critical department. 
  3. Introspect and seek help right away if needed – do you have experience in working on a project like this before? If you do, don’t let your past experience cloud fresh possibilities. If you don’t have experience either in working on a similar project or using the current methodology, seek help from another BA / Requirements Manager or a Centre of Excellence if the organization has one. You don’t want to do 12 months of work and then appear foolish at the cost of appearing a fool for the first 12 hours.  

The BA Approach Template – Key Components

  1. Approach for BA Work – this section should describe at a high level what approach is being followed to perform business analysis. What crucial elements need to be part of approach. Providing an overview of the business problem, goals and objectives is useful. 
    1. Techniques, Deliverables, and Timeline is a key component here:
      -       Create a list of techniques such as process modeling, use cases, document analysis, requirements workshops, and interface analysis.
      -       Produce a high-level business requirements document and a detailed stakeholder and solution requirements document.
      -       Establish a high-level timeline of abstraction showing key business analysis milestones leading up to requirements sign off.
  2. Timing of BA Work - is the BA work going to be done in the beginning or performed iteratively all through the project. 
  3. Formality / Level of Details - depending on the organizational context a formal approach maybe adopted. If there are requirements standards that need to be followed, this needs to be detailed here. 
  4. Requirements Prioritization Approach - how will the requirements be prioritized and the key stakeholders involved in the requirements prioritization process.
  5. Tools for BA Work - if there are any requirements management tools or repositories used, this needs to be detailed out here.
  6. Project Complexity - this could be an assessment of how complex the project is based on the number of impacted areas and the criticality of the change from the organizational perspective.
  7. Approach to Scope and Change Management - how will the changes to scope and requirements be handled, if a high level process or flow chart needs to be built, you could define it here.
  8. Approach to Sign-off - what modality and approach will be followed to get concurrence and sign-off for requirements.
  9. Approach to Communication - how will the communication occur, the medium and frequency used.

Business Analysis Approach Template – Download for FREE

[Coming soon] 
 
We are putting together a great list of FREE templates for the BA community. The BA Approach template will be part of this and you will be able to download a FREE template soon.

Your Thoughts Please

Have you used a BA approach template or creating something analogous before you started analysis? What name does this template or activity have in your organization?

Today is the day when you stop the dog and pony show as a Business Analyst. That’s enough!

If you were ever confused with the multitude of templates that you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis as an analyst, it is all about to end.

Wouldn’t it be nice to never document meeting minutes, because it’s an utter waste of time?

Why would you need to plan your business analysis approach when the PM knows what the deliverables are already?

Requirements attributes are just columns that you will have to fill out and what’s the point in planning them out ahead of time?

Today we are pleased to present “The Omniscient BA Template” … the only template you’ll need to perform business analysis end-to-end.

This feature rich and versatile template helps you to read Your stakeholders minds, decode politics and get things done!

Presenting the Omniscient BA Template

If you are already envisioning a 500+ page template with 30 different sections that includes every aspect of analysis work, I would like shed some light on its existence.

The reality is:

It doesn’t exist!

Yes, it really doesn’t. And there is no better day to realize that this is a no more than a joke on the most light hearted day of the year – The April Fools Day! :)

The Template Fool Syndrome

On the same token, it is unrealistic to think that by just having a BA template to perform certain aspect of analysis would be a be all and end all entity. Typically, you may have searched google to find a template that someone created to give you an idea of how things get constructed and structured to elicit, analyse and control requirements and scope. There is more it than just this.

No tool or template can accelerate analysis unless the analyst thinks through its implication and ensure that all the right questions are asked at the right time involving the right stakeholders.

So, how do you ensure that you have a template that address every need in the most comprehensive manner?
And, more importantly how do you ensure that you understand the not-so-obvious intricacies in creating a complete artifact from a template?

As I always like to say about the misconception that a tool or template can solve a problem effectively:

A fool with a tool (or template) is a more dangerous fool!

What is a Template?

If you look at the dictionary definition of a template, the closest pertinent definition is:

“…anything that determines or serves as a pattern; or a model to do something…”

For performing business analysis, we could define a template to be:

“… a starting point, standard or an outline of a model that helps business analyst perform analysis conforming to the standards of the organization and to ensure timely delivery of requirements and associated artifacts…”

It is usually a document or file having a pre-set format, used as a starting point for a particular application so that the format does not have to be recreated each time it is used in performing business analysis tasks.

The BABOK Perspective

So, how do templates look in the world of BABOK. Where are they referenced in the 32 tasks and seven knowledge areas?

There are three primary areas where BA templates could be aligned in the BABOK

1. Inputs 

Per the BABOK V2: 

An input represents the information and preconditions necessary for a task to begin. Inputs may be:

>> Explicitly generated outside the scope of business analysis (e.g., construction of a software application).

>> Generated by a business analysis task. 

There is no assumption that the presence of an input or an output means that the associated deliverable is complete or in its final state. The input only needs to be sufficiently complete to allow successive work to begin. Any number of instances of an input may exist during the life cycle of an initiative.

Using this context, templates constitute inputs that get generated by (or used by) a business analysis task. 

For Example: If you have planned for a high level approach for business analysis, and have created a “Business Analysis Approach” document, this can serve as an input; and if you know your BABOK, this is generated by the task ‘Plan Business Analysis Approach (2.1)’. 

2. Outputs

An output is a necessary result of the work described in the task. Outputs are created, transformed or change state as a result of the successful completion of a task. Although a particular output is created and maintained by a single task, a task can have multiple outputs.

An output may be a deliverable or be a part of a larger deliverable. The form of an output is dependent on the type of initiative under way, standards adopted by the organization, and best judgement of the business analyst as to an appropriate way to address the information needs of key stakeholders. As with inputs, an instance of a task may be completed without an output being in its final state. The input or output only needs to be sufficiently complete to allow successive work to begin. Similarly, there may be one or many instances of an output created as part of any given initiative. Finally, the creation of an output does not necessarily require that subsequent tasks which use that work product as an input must begin.

Using this context, templates are ways you could start creating an output gradually as your analysis moves along.

For Example: You may complete creating a “Requirements Management Plan” and use it to guide other aspects of your analysis (e.g. change management, requirements prioritization, etc) –  Or create a “Requirements Package” containing a collection of your project deliverables, which gets built with time as your analysis moves along.

3. Techniques

Each task contains a listing of relevant techniques. Some techniques are specific to the performance of a single task, while others are relevant to the performance of a large number of tasks.

You could also think of techniques as a way to perform a task in the BABOK.  

Why Do You Need Templates?

There are four main reasons why I think templates add a lot of value if used and leveraged properly:

  • Ensure Coverage
  • Set Expectations for business analysis work
  • Conform to Organizational Standards 
  • Increase Productivity  

We Are Marking April as BA Templates Month

Starting today we will provide in-depth articles to help the BA community to demystify and help them use BA templates. For us this is a massive endeavour and we are onto something big in the weeks to come.

Your Thoughts Please!

What other ways do you think templates help with analysis?

What challenges have you faced with using templates as a BA?

What is the biggest benefit that a template has offered you in the past?

Let’s say on an average you commute 2 hrs everyday (to and from work) – which I do. So, that’s 10 hours a week and roughly 520 hours a year. If an average audiobook is about 8 hours in length, then technically you can listen to 65 books in a year! 

Well, practically speaking that might be a lofty goal. You will also have to mix in music, podcasts, reading or just observing strange behaviors of your fellow-commuters. Right? 

However, what about a goal of listening to 7 books? Much more achievable, eh?

If you have never heard of audiobooks and you always thought listening was for music and radio only, think again! Your world of learning is about to change. Click to continue

A prototype is an early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from. [i]

The BABOK describe 34 techniques for business analysts to aid them in their pursuit of capturing better requirements and designing better solutions.  This blog post will look at prototyping and how it can be used more effectively in a business analyst’s armory. Click to continue

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